Blair urges world to engage Iran, Syria for sake of Middle East peace

Sunday, November 12th 2006, 8:51 pm
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the international community on Monday to engage Iran and Syria to advance the peace process in the Middle East and defended his government's close relationship with the U.S.

Blair said the outcome of the Iraq war was central to bringing peace to the Middle East, and the world must make clear to Syria and Iran how they can assist in the process as well as the consequences of hindering it. Blair was to deliver the remarks in a speech later Monday and excerpts of the text were released in advance by his office.

The United States has said it was willing to hold direct talks with Iran about Iraq, which would be the most public exchange between the countries in years. But the U.S. does not want to discuss broader subjects such as Iran's contentious nuclear program which Washington suspects is aimed at making weapons.

The U.S. and other Western nations have isolated Syria for more than a year. Washington wants Syria to stop its backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, end support of Palestinian militants and help crack down on insurgents crossing the border into Iraq.

Blair's address to the annual Lord Mayor's banquet in London comes a day before he was scheduled to speak by video-link to the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan Washington commission trying to devise a new course for the war in Iraq. Blair has been President Bush's staunchest ally in that war, a position that has cost him support at home.

Blair said forging bonds with nations that share Britain's values is necessary for future security and the best foreign policy to pursue is one built on strong alliances.

``Our partnership with America and our membership of the (European Union) are precisely suited to Britain,'' he said. ``For that reason anti-Americanism or Euro-skepticism are not merely foolish, they are the surest route to the destruction of our true national interest.

``When people say, 'Yes, but we want a British foreign policy,' I say, 'Of course we do, but in today's world a foreign policy based on strong alliances is the only British policy which works,''' he said.

Britain has sent more troops to Iraq than any nation besides the U.S., and rising violence there, and a British death toll that on Sunday reached 125, have heightened calls for a change of strategy.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said Sunday that four British servicemen were killed in an attack on a patrol boat in Basra's Shatt al-Arab waterway in southern Iraq. Three servicemen were wounded, the ministry said.

Blair has repeatedly said British troops will remain in Iraq until Iraqi forces can take responsibility for security.